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Colin Strickland: Red Hook’s newest don

Colin Strickland works a day job, races on a local Cat 1 team, and dominates the Red Hook Criterium series.

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Colin Strickland lives three starkly different lives on and off of the bicycle. On weekdays Strickland, 30, is a day jobber, working at an environmental consulting firm in Austin, Texas. On weekends, Strickland hits Cat. 1 road races riding for team Elbowz, one of the strongest amateur cycling teams in the Midwest.

A few times a year, however, Strickland achieves something that even professional racers dream of: He stands atop a racing podium in front of thousands of fans. Strickland is the newest king of the Red Hook Criterium fixed-gear series, having won its three most recent races.

“At the [Tour of the ] Gila, I think it was Danny Pate who rolled up and asked me if I was the Red Hook guy,” Strickland says. “I couldn’t believe it — it was pretty rad.”

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The fixed-gear series has traditionally favored sprinters who can survive the furious, crash-filled kicks to the line. Strickland, however, has won his three consecutive Red Hook events with dramatic breakaways.

Last October, he won the Milan, Italy round of the series after sprinting away at the race’s midpoint. In April, Strickland soloed away from the group to win Red Hook’s home race in Brooklyn. And this past Sunday in London, Strickland again broke away, this time with Romania’s road race champion Marius Petrache.

Strickland eventually dropped Petrache and then held off Cofidis sprinter Loic Chetout for the victory.

“I’ve ridden them more like a time trial than an actual criterium,” Strickland says. “Everybody is doing about the same RPM so you wear down evenly.”

Strickland prefers to attack than sit in the bunch in fixed-gear races. Photo credit: Chris Riekert.
Strickland prefers to attack than sit in the bunch in fixed-gear races. Photo: Chris Riekert

The Red Hook victories stand in contrast to Strickland’s modest results in the domestic road scene. His fifth-place finish at the 2015 Thompson Bucks County Classic is his top result on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar. He was third last year at amateur nationals. This year he has raced at a handful of National Racing Calendar events, including the Redlands Bicycle Classic, Tour of the Gila, and Joe Martin Stage Race, but has consistently finished in the pack.

In Austin, locals know him as the top dog at the local Driveway Criterium Series. Outside of Texas, Strickland is relatively unknown.

Strickland said his ambitions on the road are secondary to his goals in fixed-gear events. Earlier this year he suffered a concussion in a crash at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, which derailed his season. The crash also steered his ambitions back toward fixed-gear racing, which Strickland says he now prefers to road races.

“I know it sounds crazy, but [road races] feel more unpredictable,” Strickland says. “People panic and grab the brakes.”

The perspective stands in contrast to Red Hook’s reputation for scary crashes and dangerous situations, which was bolstered this year by a YouTube clip of riders running into a stalled event motorcycle. Strickland says he’s cognizant of the dangers of racing on fixed-gear bicycles, and says he believes the events are no more dangerous than traditional road criterium.

“Everybody is paying more attention [in a fixed-gear race],” Strickland says. “You don’t space out like guys do in road racing.”

The Red Hook races cater to Strickland’s history on a fixed-gear bicycle. Strickland did not race road bicycles as a junior or a collegiate racer; instead he spent his early 20s commuting around Austin on a track bicycle. In 2010 he entered a local Austin bicycle messenger race and won. David Trimble, Red Hook’s founder and promoter, attended the race and invited Strickland to participate in the Brooklyn race.

The 2010 and 2011 Red Hook races in Brooklyn marked Strickland’s entry point to bicycle racing.

“It was flat out from the gun,” Strickland says. “You needed to know how to ride a track bike.”

After racing Red Hook twice, Strickland migrated toward traditional road racing, and quickly rose the ranks in the local Austin scene. He then won events across Texas and Oklahoma, and joined Elbowz Racing in 2014.

After a three-year gap, Strickland decided to try the fixed-gear format again in 2015. He raced two events in Austin before joining a team for the Milan round of the Red Hook Criterium. Part of the gamesmanship at Red Hook events is choosing a correct gear ratio, since the winding, twisting courses force riders to constantly accelerate and decelerate.

Strickland opted for a 48 x 14 gear, which he says allows him to accelerate and maintain a fast time-trial speed. After bouncing around in the pack through the start, he reached the front of the group and sprung away. The gear proved to be ideal for the course. With nine laps remaining, the peloton had come within a few seconds of Strickland. As a last-ditch effort, he gave another effort, growing the gap to 20 seconds. By the final lap, Strickland had a comfortable advantage.

Bringing solo breakaways back is notoriously difficult in fixed-gear criteriums. Riders cannot coast, so they must all take a similar line to avoid striking a pedal. A solo rider can choose the most efficient line through the corners, without worrying about banging bars. The peloton, however, bunches up through turns, as riders skid to avoid pedal strikes and crashes. Riders often try to bridge, only to spin out on the flats.

Strickland took his third win at Sunday's Red Hook race in London. Photo credit: Chris Riekert
Strickland took his third win at Sunday’s Red Hook race in London. Photo: Chris Riekert

“It makes sense to ride at the front because there is very little drafting in [a fixed-gear criterium] so you’re not saving that much energy in the pack,” Strickland said. “When somebody attacks, only two or three people can go with the move. If you’re too far back, it’s hard to get a bead on it.”

Strickland’s victory upset Red Hook’s traditional pecking order. In 2014 and 2015 the series was dominated by former Mercatone Uno sprinter Ivan Ravaioli of Italy.

Strickland recognized the advantage in Milan, and used it again at the Brooklyn round. For that race, he teamed up with veteran criterium rider Aldo Ilesic. The men competed on a team fronted by Red Hook’s newest sponsor, Specialized.

Strickland again attacked early. This time, Ilesic chased down the group’s attempts to bridge. By the race’s end, Strickland again had a big enough gap to cruise across the line. He beat Ravaioli, former Team Type 1 rider Daniele Callegarin, and former U.S. criterium champion Daniel Holloway.

Strickland says he will continue racing the domestic U.S. series for Elbowz. His primary focus is defending his title on the Red Hook series, which holds its next round on August 27 in Barcelona. Standing atop a podium in front of fans, after all, is something he rarely does at his day job, or at regional road races.

“It’s definitely an odd skill-set to have,” Strickland says. “Of course It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about something you’re good at.”